(Originally published by Jonathan Cape, 2014)
Reviewed by Stephanie Sorrell
I found this to be a searingly exquisite and highly informative work about a young woman’s relationship with a goshawk.
Three strands weave their way throughout this eloquently-written autobiography. The first is the author’s grief after the sudden unexpected death of her father. The second is her life experience as a hawker and the third is her ever-emerging insights into the work of writer, scholar and teacher, T. H. White, as she contrasts his experiences of keeping a hawk with her own. I read White’s classic The Goshawk some time ago and was struck by what appeared to be the emotional destitution of the author. I now realise why that was.
Even if you have never been particularly interested in hawks, it is as if an invisible thread pulls you into this book again and again to find out more. Macdonald’s nature writing is both searching and charmingly educational. It is easily equal to that of Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Roger Macfarlane or John Lister-Kaye
Although training her hawk, called Mabel, is not new to the author, through it she is able to confront her own innermost nature. The archaeology of grief is not ordered, she says.
Macdonald’s writing is erudite, poetical, exotic and magical. And, for me, it was not possible to skim-read or rush through it. Her writing, like a fine wine, seeps into your being without even realising it and lifts your spirits high above the mundane. There is a charming portrayal of Macdonald playing ‘peekaboo’ with Mabel through a rolled-up magazine. She writes, Her eyes are narrowed in ‘bird laughter’ and: all the feathers on her forehead are raised. She shakes her tail rapidly from side to side and shivers with happiness. This observation is far from maudlin sentimentality, it is wrought from the weeks and months of voluntary isolation that she spent while training her hawk.
Emerging from this biographical template of pure nature writing are a further three lenses into the psychology of grief by icons such as Freud, Winnicott and Melanie Klein on loss and grieving.
If you only read one book this year, I cannot help but recommend this one.